Saturday, June 7, day 13 “on the trail”. In quotes because technically we are about an hour and a half south of the trail in Hot Springs AR, sitting on the outdoor patio of the grand Arlington Hotel, enjoying a stiff Bourbon ginger ale. The first time in nearly a week that we’ve had access to WiFi, It’s pouring rain and a little windy, perfect for the task of reporting our travels.
Monday at the KOA we woke up to rain and decided to take the opportunity to do laundry and catch up on the Internets. We didn’t feel like standing in the rain to make coffee so we hit the local coffee shop in Sallisaw. A kind of “Grandmas Coffee Corner” type of place, the coffee was mediocre at best, not unlike what Brian has been brewing up each morning in the percolator.
Back on the trail under grey skies. The lush greenery against the red earth made for a beautiful drive today. Other than that, nothing really notable on the trail. We made camp near Devil’s Den State Park, Arkansas. Although there was a State campground, free camping is easy to find all along the river/creek on any of the offshoot roads from the main road that the TAT follows.
There are some huge campsites, closer to the State campground, that are obviously popular with what we hope are the local youths. Trash was strewn about the empty campsites and the fire pits were littered with the skeletal frames of camp chairs and charred remains of tents and river floats. We chose a nice clean spot about a mile down the road, and settled in for a relaxing night of music, wine, and campfire.
Coffee, mimosas, break down camp, and back on the trail. The soundtrack for the day- Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar’s “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur”. Today’s drive is perfect and will prove to be one of the most technical/exciting days on the trail.
For the most part, these trails are well maintained and smooth. The first half of the day had us humming Waylon Jennings and daydreaming of drifting around the curves in a bright orange Charger running from the local law. It wasn’t long though before we saw the road sign that we had been nervously anticipating: Warloop Road.
Through Brian’s extensive research of the route, Warloop Rd. had come up quite often as the most technical portion of the whole trail. Many had warned all to steer clear of the few miles, while a few others had said not to believe the hype. We figured that we could always turn around if it looked too sketchy. I mean, as long as the trail wasn’t too narrow, or steep, or muddy, or rocky, when we determined it to be too dangerous we would be able to turn back, right? Apprehensively, we rolled onward.
For about the first mile or so, smooth sailing, so far so good, then a sign: IMPASSABLE ROAD AHEAD. Even more anxiety, this is the first week of our hopefully yearlong adventure; what if we destroy the massively underinsured Jeep. What if we seriously injure ourselves…or worse? We had a short nervous discussion about how we each felt (secretly hoping the other would save us from the decision we were about to make) and decided to keep going.
Then we came to a bit of a roadblock in the form of a giant mud hole. There was a cliff straight up to the left of the mud, and a newly constructed barbed wire fence on the right (obviously put in place by a local landowner to keep people from going around the mud, and through his property). Between the mud and the barbed wire was a raised patch of somewhat solid ground, debatably wide enough for us to fit our Jeep through. Carley marshaled as Brian advanced our machine. After several attempts, we gave up on circumventing the mud hole. We were too top heavy, and may have rolled if we slid the Jeep off of its narrow perch. We were going to have to go through, rather than around. After making sure that we had enough winch line and straps to reach the nearest tree if we bottomed out, we dismounted the sand ladders and sunk them directly into the stagnant water in hopes that they would create enough of a foundation for the Jeep to make it across. This mud hole was big and ugly and, according to Carley who had to stick her hands in it repeatedly to reposition the sand ladders, “suuuuuper gross”. Inching forward from one ladder to the next we made it through. Our clothes were covered in muck and our faces with sweat as we gave a messy high-five and moved on up the road.
Note: I do believe that anyone attempting this trail in a 4x4 could probably just drive across this mud hole, it seemed well packed and stable under the water. Of course I discovered that on further inspection only after we had already passed.
We might have assumed that the worst of the road was behind us, if we hadn’t already seen videos declaring otherwise. We anxiously navigated our way up the hill; going over and around the rocks protruding from the ground, and silently wondered how bad our decision had been. As we slowly approached the obstacle that videos and discussion boards had warned us about, I couldn’t help but feel like we had been overly worried once it came into view. It is certainly an obstacle that could prove fatal if someone were to approach it carelessly, but any stock 4x4 with decent clearance should be able to clear it without incident, especially if they were doing the trail from east to west ie: downhill. Again, with Carley (nervously) marshalling and using a couple of strategically placed rocks and the sand ladders as ramps up the ledge, we were easily up and over what was “the most technical terrain on the TAT”.
The next few miles were easy going. That is, until we came to a sign that read Bridge Out. We wanted to investigate since these signs had proven to be wrong in recent history. However, as we crept down the dirt road, we saw that there was a logging truck with a few other pieces of machinery blocking the way. We backed up to turn around and figure out a re-route, when Carley saw out of the corner of her eye that the truck driver was waving us over. He was a friendly fellow in his mid-thirties with a deep, southern drawl and only 3 full fingers. We imagined the rest, only nubs, were casualties of the trade. He assured us that we could make it across the bridge, saying, “It’s just a little bitty hole”, making a circle with his hands roughly the size of a soccer ball. “I could drive my fuckin’ logging truck across it if I wanted to” and, in fact, had done so a few days prior, earning him a $240 ticket. “They hide out just past the bridge, off to the left”, he whispered. With our intel, we scouted the bridge and it’s potential cop hide-outs. All clear! So we crossed the bridge, driving around the “little bitty hole”, and continued on our way.
A couple of miles down the road the GPS signaled another re-route, and once again we disregarded said re-route. Just at the beginning of what the new route would have bypassed, was a sizable but easily drivable mud hole. We assumed, incorrectly, that maybe after hard rains, it was not easily navigated on motorcycles, and thus the reason for the re-route. A few minutes later we came to the actual reason for the bypass, a serious water crossing. It wasn’t necessarily the depth that was concerning but the strength of the current. The water was only about two and a half feet deep or so but the current was very strong, and the crossing was easily over 100’ wide. There were some locals sitting in the water near the riverbank across from us. Brian yelled across to ask how deep it was in the middle, to which one of them replied, “you’ll probably make it” and the other said, “ I didn’t make it a few weeks ago, but it was a little deeper then”.
We weren’t really sure what to make of their responses. What did they mean would happen if we didn’t “make it”? Did they think the water might be too deep and it would kill the motor, meaning we would need to be pulled out? Were the rocks in the riverbed too big to easily go over? Or did they think that the current was strong enough to wash the Jeep down stream? Not that any of the scenarios sounded appealing, but we really wanted to know what insight they might have, seeing as though they knew this place. One of them was nice enough to walk across the river in the spot where they said we should try to cross to show how deep it was. It was just over his knees, and aside from fighting the current; it didn’t look to be much trouble for him to cross on his feet. So, with fingers crossed we entered the water. Luckily the riverbed was pretty smooth along the bottom and allowed us to keep a steady pace all of the way across. For once, we were happy that the jeep was weighted down so much. A lighter vehicle would have been moved by the water with unknown results. For smaller, lighter trucks or motorcycles, the re-route is advisable.
We were sad that we didn’t get video of the crossing, but opted not to try our luck again just for a photo op. The water made some of the Jeeps electronic controls go haywire for a few minutes after the crossing causing our ABS not to work and making it necessary to immobilize the traction control for a couple of hours. Fortunately all was well when everything dried out.
Still reeling from our eventful day, we moved on down the road to Ozark, AR and made camp at the Ozark Powerhouse campground. Exhausted and dirty, we opted to cook dinner, shower and call it a night.
Wednesday morning was stiflingly muggy and by 11am it was 80 degrees. Refusing to use the AC, we were a bit warm, so Brian suggested we take a break from the trail and dip our toes in some water. We could see the shallow, blueish-green, meandering water from the road, calling to us, “come swim…you’ll be so happy in here”. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to find a proper swimming hole in what we later found out is the Mulberry River. Making an abrupt turn off the trail, Brian said “this is my last try…after this, we give up”. We drove down a bumpy, sandy trail that led presumably to nowhere, to find the most perfectly blue-green, waist deep water with just enough of a shallow end to drive the Jeep across. Which of course, we did after a couple of mimosas, a beer and a quick river bath.
We changed out of our swimsuits and tossed them up onto the roof of the Jeep to dry while we put on our clothes and planned out our next section of the trail. About a mile back onto the trail, Carley noticed some fabric caught in the door, blowing in the wind. It was her bathing suit! We immediately pulled off the road to retrieve it and to see if Brian’s trunks had somehow made it too, but of course, they hadn’t. It took only a few minutes of driving to see that they had flown off of the roof and into the middle of the oncoming traffic lane. We watched as a truck ran them over and three motorcycles swerved to miss them.(pretty much the only traffic we’d seen all day) Once back in the Jeep, Carley inspected the trunks, the damage was minimal…just dirty.
A few miles up the road, we came to a quaint little town called Oark, AR. In that town was, well, not much except the Oark Café and Gas Station. As we pulled in the parking area, we noticed the three motorcyclists that had so nicely swerved around Brian’s swimming trunks, were parking their bikes in the same lot. We were sure they were on the Trans America Trail as well, so Brian struck up a conversation with one of the riders. We found out that, although they weren’t currently doing the TAT, one of them had done it end to end just a few years ago. We sat and chatted with them a bit about the route while sipping root beer, then it was back to the trail.
We decided to make camp south of the TAT at yet another lake, in Russelville AR. Lake Dardanelle. A quiet evening, and a quiet campground, we took a stroll on the lakeshore watching the wild mink scurry around in the moonlight.
The next morning we continued south, leaving the trail even further behind. We had decided last minute to take a side trip to Hot Springs AR. Neither of us knew much about the town, only that there were some historic bathhouses.
This place is amazing, and should be visited if you ever get the chance. It’s difficult to predict the size of the town you’re approaching when it’s merely a name on a map. So many of the towns we’ve passed on this route are rarely more than a sign on the roadside that let you know you’ve been there. Sometimes the “town” is one closed down store, or just a house or two. We couldn’t believe the size or splendor of Hot Springs when we pulled in. While it’s clear that that this city’s heyday is long past, there is still plenty of life in this town, and it seems that maybe it’s bouncing back. Hot Springs is full of once majestic bathhouses, and hotels, with magnolia lined streets. It has all of the grandeur of Old Las Vegas but with way more class and history.
We decided to take a break from sleeping in the Jeep and stay for a night at the Arlington Motel. Built, as much of the town, in the 20’s it was once the most regal of all lodgings in AR, and is still the largest in all of the state. We had planned to do a night on the town, drinking and watching live music at Maxine’s, but after dinner (and some drinks, of course) we were too tired to do much else, and called it another early night.
The next morning was spent sightseeing, then a thermal mineral soak at the Quapaw Bathhouse. The Quapaw is one of the only two remaining original bathhouses still in operation on Bathhouse Row and shouldn’t be missed. Afterwards it was back to the patio of the Arlington for drinks and trip reports.
That evening, opting for the $10 campground just outside of Hot Springs, we met a couple from Maine named Kiley and Mike who are on a cross-country trip to the West Coast. The four of us sat around our camp table, drank a few beers and talked about a little bit of everything. It was nice to have a real conversation with someone and not just the usual rundown of the Jeep and our travels.
This morning it’s back north to find the trail. We’ll report back the next time we have WiFi.
Turtles helped across the road: 19 and counting